Editor's note: The Journal today continues its countdown of the Top 10 Stories of 2019 in Siouxland, as chosen by Journal editors. The No. 1 story will be revealed on Dec. 30, and the Journal's annual Newsmaker of the Year will be named on Dec. 31.
SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- Doubts surfaced early in 2019 about the future of the Big Ox Energy biofuels plant in South Sioux City, and little that happened throughout the year cleared the uncertainty.
Fines mounted, and financial troubles surfaced. Environmental citations continued, and the plant ceased operations in the spring.
Nebraska regulators have yet to decide whether to terminate the Wisconsin-based company's air and stormwater permits. The South Sioux City Council has declared the city's interest in buying the plant, but no decision has been announced.
Already facing more than a dozen lawsuits linked to odors from the plant, the Wisconsin-based company continued to rack up fines in January for exceeding limits of wastewater it was discharging to Sioux City's wastewater treatment plant. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy (formerly the Department of Environmental Quality) cited the company in January for stockpiling solid materials on its property in violation of its state permit.
Rumors of financial difficulties surfaced in March, when Sioux City revealed that it was owed more than $3 million in treatment fees, late charges and fines, a total the company disputes.
After repeated citations for venting of hydrogen sulfide gas and solid waste spills, the NDEE called on Big Ox to show why its permits should not be revoked.
Big Ox, which accepted organic waste from local food and beverage manufacturers and converted it to methane for sale and also received wastewater from other South Sioux City industries, pretreated it and discharged it to Sioux City's regional wastewater treatment plant, unexpectedly announced on April 19 that it was suspending its biogas production operations to repair digesters that had leaked solid waste. On April 30, the plant's wastewater treatment operations were shut down after Sioux City did not renew its wastewater discharge permit.
It has yet to resume operations while awaiting an NDEE decision on whether to revoke its air and wastewater permits.
Meanwhile, judgments against the company began to mount.
In August, a Dakota County judge awarded $30,860 to a Le Mars, Iowa, trucking company that had sued for nonpayment of hauling truckloads of materials earlier in the year.
A federal judge in October awarded a $506,015 default judgment to a supplier that had sued Big Ox for not paying for chemicals, parts and a pump.
A Nebraska landfill also has sued for more than $28,000 in unpaid waste services.
Big Ox officials have declined to comment on the company's financial situation and potential sale of the plant.
Since Big Ox began operations in September 2016, it has been subject to odor complaints. In answer to lawsuits from nearby landowners, Big Ox filed a counterclaim in which it blamed the odor and gas releases on an engineering firm and a soybean processor that was sending waste to Big Ox for treatment.